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This Tastes Laos-y

January 22, 2010

We are lucky in this country to have access to so many international cuisines – granted, some are not as authentic as others, but nonetheless, the variety from which we have to choose is phenomenal.  And yet, so much of the world’s cuisine is not represented here.  Take Laos, for instance.  What do we really know about it?  Most people couldn’t point to it on a map, let alone know much about Laotian food.  Well luckily for us, a loyal reader just returned from a vacation in that country, and has graciously shared his foodie experience.  Please read on and enjoy!

“In general, [the food in Laos] is similar to Thai food, with similar use of spices and fresh herbs.  It’s cheap.  Meals generally run $2-$4 per entrée, and $1 or so for appetizers or salads.  There are a number of decent Indian restaurants, and in Luang Prabang there were a few pizza/pasta places.  There are a few foreigners that have come in and created some non-Lao food spots.  We ate at one that made their own pasta… it was awesome.  There was also a German ice cream shop that used some local flavors… orange ginger sorbet, lemongrass ice cream.  Both excellent.

Lao food is packed with flavor and they make liberal use of the vegetables and herbs that grow in abundance locally.  But the main staple of the Lao diet is sticky rice.  We got a rather convoluted description of how sticky rice is made (how it becomes sticky), but there seems to be a lot of soaking involved, and some different treatment of the hull perhaps.  They make a ton of it, usually twice a day.  It’s filling and the Lao people eat it with every meal, so we tried to eat it often as well.  We learned during our stay in the village, when we were provided with no utensils, that they also use sticky rice as an eating implement.  You take a clump out of the basket, wad it up into a ball, flatten it a little so it’s somewhat shaped like a shovel, then use it as a scoop, with your thumb on the other side to press the food into the rice.  Pop the whole thing in your mouth.  This is how they eat everything but soup – for that they use spoons.  The local food seems to be stir fried veggies and whatever else you can find.  Morning glory was especially tasty.  They have different varieties of stuff we see here – small eggplants, odd tomatoes, bok choy-like greens, etc.  They put whole chunks of ginger in their soups (watch out), just like you would slice up a carrot.  Meats seem a bit harder to come by in the village, but it generally appeared to be stir fried with the other stuff.

On one of our jungle excursions, our guide made us a bbq’d lunch – veggie and beef kabobs in a spiced tomato-ish sauce.  Fantastic.  Also some ground up chili paste stuff to dip the sticky rice in that was phenomenal.  There were also several plants growing by a waterfall that they simply yanked out and took a bite of – like a cow.  I tried a few of these – were kinda like parsley for the most part.  I also tried the dried buffalo, simply to be polite, since it looked like a petrified earthworm.  It was solid rubber and I could barely bite into it, so I really couldn’t say how it was, as I’m not sure I tasted it.

Most of the hotels/b&bs served “American” breakfast…eggs (fried, scrambled, or omelet – which is beaten then fried, but not scrambled, and not necessarily stuffed with anything), baguette with jam or butter, and fruit (usually banana and papaya, and then it varied between watermelon, pineapple, and dragonfruit), coffee or tea.  Lao coffee is STRONG.  Green tea is a bunch of leaves in a cup with hot water.  Mint tea was the same and quite good.  Occasionally we found pancakes which were good (mulberry or bananas, with honey, not syrup).  In their homes, Lao breakfast is typically leftover dinner from the night before.

My favorite dish by far was Laap.  It’s a minced chicken salad (or beef, or pork, or fish, yak, or…) with TONS of fresh mint, green onion, probably lemongrass, and various other spices, on greens.  Dressed in a very light tangy, probably oil based sauce.  Sometimes with hot chilis, sometimes not. Each restaurant did it a little different, but it was always great.  This is one I’d want to make at home.  Incredibly flavorful.  Our favorite restaurant did the chicken and tofu laap very well, and had great veggie curry fried spring rolls.  I did have fish laap on a picnic lunch while kayaking – it was actually pureed with eggplant and pretty darn good (because it didn’t taste like fish).

We had green papaya salad almost every day.  Again, it varied from place to place, but was always excellent.  Variations on spiciness and what else was in it.  Green tomatoes, eggplant, etc.

The best eating spots were 2 of the guest houses we stayed in, where the restaurant was attached, and the owner/manager/cleaning staff/chef cooked you a meal whenever you happened to show up.  Again, fresh produce and herbs from their garden or down the street.  [We] had great tofu curries.

The French influence is seen mainly at lunch, as they do baguette sandwiches.  We saw baguettes in the market labeled as Falang bread.  “Falang” is Thai/Lao for whitey.  There was a French restaurant or 2, but we wanted Asian food.  Almost always.

There are “pancake” carts that come out at night, primarily to serve tourists.  They make crepes filled with bananas, chocolate, coconut, honey, or whatever else they have on hand.  Desserts don’t seem to be too common, but on the menu they generally had stir-fried bananas in honey, some sort of sweet sticky rice thing, and/or sticky rice with mango slices.  Nothing extravagant.

Perhaps the best part of the cuisine was the fresh fruit shakes.  Generally 60-80 cents, we drank thousands of these.  The production varied from spot to spot, but it’s basically fresh fruit and ice, put into the blender.  Sometimes powdered milk, or sweetened condensed milk is added to make it more creamy.  Always refreshing on hot days.  We had a broad variety of these… orange, lemon, dragonfruit, pineapple, apple, banana, coconut, lime/ginger/mint (awesome), and watermelon.  The dragonfruit has hints of chocolate for whatever reason and was quite good.  Watermelon, pineapple, and coconut were generally the other crowd favorites.”

Thanks for sending this in, reader Darren!  Or as they say in Laos, “Hàwng Nâm Yuu Sai?!?!?”

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3 comments

  1. Had I known you were going to cut and paste (slacker) I would have used bigger words.


  2. Hey, I try to give you a compliment by not doing much editing of your words, and respond with an insult? Don’t make me ban you.


  3. […] have I seen the larb gai.  I only have knowledge of the dish from one of the MHK’s reader’s review of the food in Laos, so I was excited to see it offered.  Unfortunately, neither dish was as good as I’d hoped.  […]



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